Sunday, May 12, 2013

Oregon City-Planning a Future at Willamette Falls

The Blue Heron Paper Plant, a successor to Smurfit Paper, which replaced James River Paper, which replaced Publishers Paper, who bought the Hawley Pulp and Paper Company was the last in a long line of paper companies in Oregon City, at the Willamette Falls.  (There is an entirely separate, if somewhat related, series of paper companies across the river, at West Linn, where the West Linn Paper Company still operates).  When Blue Heron went into bankruptcy, their plant, and a huge segment of Oregon City’s economy were thrown into a questionable future.

Last year I was part of a huge collection of professionals that participated in what became known as the BAT, the “Building Assessment Team,” looking at what of future value remained among the 60+ structures on the property, what challenges existed to reusing or re-purposing the site for something other than paper making, and what opportunities were available considering this phenomenal location overlooking the Willamette and the second largest waterfall (by volume) in the US.  There are lots of challenges, but there are lots more opportunities if you can just manage to get a grip on all of the many many moving parts on this site, from history, to natural resources, to water quality, to cultural concerns (the Falls are a key site for several Oregon tribes), to the economy and recreation.

The BAT finished its work earlier this year and while we answered lots of unknowns, many more remained.  METRO, along with Oregon City and the bankruptcy trustee that is responsible for the future of the property, recently issued an RFP for a multidisciplinary landscape/planning/economic approach to help the community figure out a viable future for the former Blue Heron Paper mill.  That Willamette Legacy Project garnered national interest, attracting more than dozen highly qualified teams of professionals, each looking to help the community craft a blueprint for the next century of the site’s development.  It’s a question that hasn’t really be asked since 1908, when papermaker Willard P. Hawley began purchasing water rights (including what would have been Dr. John McLaughlin’s) on the south side of the river.  These former gridded blocks of downtown Oregon City will, in one way or another, soon be re-integrated in the downtown, likely to include improved public access along the river for the first time in over a century, and likely to include at least some re-use of the amazing industrial structures such as Paper Machine No. 4, below. 

We were pleased to be asked to provide historic preservation expertise to three of the teams that responded to Oregon City's RFP.   And last week we were thrilled to learn that one of them, a team led by Walker-Macy, a landscape firm in Portland, was selected.  I have worked on documenting the history of the Willamette Falls Industrial for almost two decades.  It will be exciting to have a role in helping to planning its future (and we won’t forget its history while doing so).

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